The Challenge: Rural children and adults have significantly higher rates of obesity than their urban counterparts, even after accounting for differences such as socioeconomic factors, eating behaviors, and physical activity. Higher rates of overweight and obesity among rural residents, even after accounting for these demographic and behavioral factors, suggests that rural environments themselves may somehow promote obesity.
Make an impact: Because rural residents make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, and face health challenges including high obesity rates, high levels of poverty, and limited access to healthcare providers and services, this population has been identified by some researchers as a “priority population” in the fight to reduce obesity and improve health overall.
What the findings are about: This research brief summarizes current research on elements of the rural built environment that may be related to obesity or physical activity. It also provides policy implications and a list of important rural-specific built environment measures that have been developed and tested for assessing active living supports, barriers and perceptions.
Key Findings and Recommendations:
A major difference between urban and rural environments is that regular active transportation may be an unrealistic option for some rural residents. This increases the importance of active recreation opportunities in rural communities, and the need for investment in recreation amenities and transport options to help residents get to those amenities.
Enhancing features of the rural environment, such as playgrounds, parks and recreational facilities, and diminishing barriers, including isolation, climate, safety fears, cost, lack of transportation, and lack of access to physical activity areas, are both key in addressing active living and obesity in rural communities.
Building infrastructure (e.g., wider paved shoulders along rural roads, and pedestrian crossings) and implementing Complete Streets policies that accommodate the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists can help reduce barriers to being physically active.
Especially where resources and budgets are limited, rural communities might consider starting with smaller changes (e.g., repainting existing crosswalks, adding pedestrian signs, updating and promoting Safe Routes to School and shared-use policies, reviewing town-wide snow-removal policies) to build momentum toward larger changes (e.g., widening street shoulders, adding or improving sidewalks, adding physical activity facilities to an existing park or building a new park, budgeting for late school buses). Communities can start by identifying and improving infrastructure and policies that already exist in schools, churches, worksites, and other community resources.
Isolation, lengthy travel distances, and lack of transportation opportunities may be the largest barriers to being physically active in many rural areas, especially for those who live too far away to walk to school or work, for children who rely on adults for transportation and for others without access to a car. Expanding transportation options (e.g. late school buses, vans and ride-shares) can help get rural children and adults to physical activity facilities and programs.
Creative, local solutions tailored to specific community culture, geography, climate and needs are necessary when addressing rural active living. Bringing rural community members and stakeholders together can help initiate conversations and positive changes in communities.
It is important to consider the needs of rural subpopulations, including minorities, seniors, individuals with disabilities, children and others when designing environmental, programmatic, and policy changes related to active living.
Yousefian Hansen, A. & Hartley, D. Promoting Active Living in Rural Communities. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research; 2015. Available at www.activelivingresearch.org.